Film Review: ‘The Shack’

The Shack
Courtesy of YouTube/Summit Entertainment

Octavia Spencer gets to play God in a faith-based drama about a suffering man's weekend encounter session with the Holy Trinity.

In most faith-based movie drama, God is a presence — that’s sort of the whole point — but He’s a barely visible, off-center one. He’s a character who influences events, but that doesn’t mean we see a man in a robe and a white beard. In “The Shack,” though, we really do — or, more precisely, we see Octavia Spencer, aglow with impish insight and beatific grins, as if she was on hand to give a message to Morgan Freeman: There’s a new God in town. Some members of the American Evangelical community are already up in arms over the portrayal, for reasons that are pretending not to be racist. But there’s no defense of their attack: To have any human actor portray God — Freeman, Charlton Heston, Whoopi Goldberg, George Burns — is, by definition, to present a metaphor for the undepictable. So why not Octavia Spencer?

“The Shack,” based on the self-published 2007 blockbuster Christian novel by Canadian author William P. Young, tells the story of a reverential and robust family man, Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington), who suffers an unendurable tragedy. On a camping trip with his three children, he plunges into the lake to rescue his son from drowning — and though he saves him, during those crucial moments, when everyone on the camp grounds is gathered around, Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy (Amélie Eve), disappears. It turns out that she’s been abducted by a man the police have been hunting for five years, and before long evidence turns up that she’s been murdered.

The site of the atrocity is a shack in the woods that looks like a cross between the “Amityville” house and some sordid cabin out of “Friday the 13th.” For a while, “The Shack” looks like it’s going to be a queasy piece of Christian disaster porn. It is, sort of, but it’s really a Hallmark-card therapy session, a kind of woodland weekend-retreat self-actualization seminar hosted by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Who come off, in this case, like the featured celebrity guests on a very special episode of “Oprah.”

Mack is no stranger to pain (his father was such a mean drunk that, as a 13-year-old boy, Mack poisoned him), yet he has never lost his faith. His daughter — the one who was killed — grew up calling God by the nickname “Papa.” So Mack is somewhere between skepticism and awe when he pulls a letter out of the mailbox that’s been delivered with no apparent footprints in the snow. (Almost as miraculously, it was written on a typewriter from the ’70s.) The note says that it’s been a while, and that he should drop by the shack. It’s signed “Papa.”

He drops by the shack, which looks like a wintry frozen death scene, but then, just when he’s on the verge of giving up hope, along comes Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) — or, as he comes off in this movie, a really friendly down-to-earth 2017 dude in stylish cropped curls. The snow suddenly — literally — melts away, as Mack is led to the shack: a summery refurbished version, like the bed-and-breakfast of your dreams. (Thou shalt not commit tasteless rustic décor.) It’s here that he meets the deity formerly known as Papa, played by Spencer as an endlessly benevolent matriarch of the universe who bakes biscuits and listens to reggae on her iPod, and whose attention is focused entirely on Mack, even though she’s got a lot on her plate (and I don’t just mean the exquisite breakfasts she presides over). She wants to help Mack heal. But to do that, he’s going to have to leave aside his agony and his anger. He’s going to have to forgive.

The strangest thing about “The Shack,” and the reason it’s finally a so-so movie, is that all the rage and terror and dark-side vengeance that Mack has to learn to transcend is something we’re told about, but we never actually see him mired in it. Sam Worthington, frankly, doesn’t seem like the sort of actor who gives good death wish anyway. He’s a wholesome hunk of earnestness, with no curlicues of anything offbeat. That’s why his movie stardom never worked out, and why he now seems all too right to play the hero of a cautious and soft-edged and squarely photographed bare-bones Christian psychodrama. Evangelicals, of course, are as complicated as anyone else — but unless they’re being portrayed by Robert Duvall, they rarely come off that way in commercial faith-based cinema. They’re like the grown-up heroes of Sunday-school fables.

And that’s just what “The Shack” is: a close encounter with God that’s like an instruction manual for those who prefer their faith mixed with sentimental teardrops. There’s an image of conservative Christianity as living on the opposite shore from Freudian therapy, but “The Shack” demonstrates how the two have merged. Mack must take a journey into the past to heal his demons, and to forgive the original sinner: his father. And he does it with the support of his new trio of counselor peeps: Jesus, the Messiah-as-mensch who teaches him how to walk on water (the movie’s one token supernatural touch); Sarayu, the Holy Ghost, played by the Japanese actress and model Sumira, who seems to be on hand mostly to round out the ethnicity of the cast; and Spencer’s Papa/God, who’s so jolly and benign that she makes the embrace of faith seem like sunshine and lollipops. The movie’s message is, “Have no fear! God truly is right here with you.” All that’s missing is a weekend spa treatment.

“The Shack” has a real chance to connect commercially, because even though its drama is mushy, at heart it’s a bit of a theme-park ride: the movie in which you get to know what it’s like to hang out with God and make friends with Jesus. In life, religion isn’t nearly so reassuring. It’s daunting, and our culture is starved for films that portray religious feeling in a way that’s both reverent and truthful. “The Shack” isn’t one of them; it reduces faith to a kind of spiritual comfort food. But thanks, in part, to movies like this one, maybe that’s what faith is on its way to becoming.

Film Review: 'The Shack'

Reviewed at Magno, New York, February 28, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 132 MIN.

Production

A Summit Entertainment release of a Gil Netter, Windblown Media production. Producers: Gil Netter, Brad Cummings. Executive producer: Mike Drake.

Crew

Director: Stuart Hazeldine. Screenplay: John Fusco, Andrew Lanham, Destin Cretton. Camera (color, widescreen): Declan Quinn. Editor: William Steinkamp.  

With

Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga, Graham Greene, Tim McGraw, Sumire, Amélie Eve, Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe.

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  1. Mb says:

    I loved this movie! The actors were amazing

  2. love this movie and love the book

  3. Judi says:

    I read the book and was transformed by the healing it brought to my life. After reading it, I remember walking, crying, praying and asking God if He would nurture me and heal the brokenness from my childhood. (My mom was an invalid from the time I was 4 from a car accident. Elderly people watched us as she was hospitalized repeatedly.) I wanted to see the book made into a movie for years… and I have been to see it twice. It speaks LIFE, HEALING, and PEACE that comes from forgiving and resting in God. The message of God’s LOVE is powerful… experiencing God’s love through relationship transforms us. I thought the casting was amazing and I plan to buy the DVD when it comes out. Religion with its rituals and legalism misses the beauty of intimacy in relationship with the LORD… intimacy that teaches how to love, forgive and let go, intimacy that brings healing and restoration, intimacy that gives me life. This movie exposed the difference between faith and religion. I highly recommend it for anyone who is struggling with loss, who is having difficulty forgiving someone, who has experienced childhood trauma, who has suffered pain from abuse, etc. It offers hope, encouragement and reminds us that we cannot do it on our own. We need God’s help.

  4. Callie says:

    Your article is why people misunderstand GOD/JESUS. “Religion” and “faith” are 2 totally different things, which is also stated in the movie.

  5. blackflower says:

    Good review. The film did not capture the depth of the book. The trinity was miscast. it was too schmaltzy for my taste. I loved the book. Jesus was cool and I liked the part where he says “don’t look at your past or your pain, look at me”. Truer words were never spoken.

  6. Brandon says:

    “In life, religion isn’t nearly so reassuring.” You’re right, but a relationship with God is. The movie actually talks about how God doesn’t want people to simply follow religion but to have free choice. The movie is seems to actually come off as sort of anti-religion but promotes a personal relationship with Christ. This is true in real life as well: Religion alone doesn’t get you to heaven and life everlasting, your personal relationship with Jesus does.

  7. MARTHA PARKER says:

    Read the book many years ago and loved it. I had always hoped it would be made into a movie but didn’t know if a movie could be made to do the book justice. I applaud the producers. The movie was awesome and unlike the one doing the review, I thought the characters of the Trinity were wonderfully portrayed. The relationship between the three is often hard to understand but the book and movie brought that to light. Sometimes God is put in a box and we forget that He can reveal Himself any way He deems necessary to speak to a person. God has no limitations but man tries to understand God and His Word with human logic. God is not human. His ways and thoughts are so much higher than ours. That’s where faith comes in. This movie is definitely about faith, not religion, and how much God loves us. Great movie! Great cast!

  8. Mike cowsert says:

    Review obviously written by an atheist.

  9. John says:

    Both the book and the movie have a theological depth so easily missed in our superficial world. There is no “fluff” going on here, but the workings of the “fruits of the Spirit”, especially patience and gentleness.

  10. DJ says:

    This is a wonderful film about a connection with God, and what ails humanity (the struggles). More specifically, suffering, forgiveness, judgement and love. After seeing this film, it really had me contemplating my failings, and what life really should be about. It is set with a Christian flavor, but really goes beyond that with it’s message. I highly recommend this movie.

  11. Christine says:

    For Christians who have suffered the loss of a young child as I have, this movie brings hope and healing. This movie isn’t about religion but faith, not judgment, but love. People were so moved when I saw the movie, you could hear people sobbing, including me. Theological rigidity don’t belong in a story of faith.

  12. Dana says:

    I loved the book “The Shack,” but I agree with the reviewer that the depth demonstrated in the book’s characters was missing in their movie representations. The passion and depth of emotion which are essential to the story and were richly described in the book were barely alluded to in the movie. Praying this movie doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes about God but rather encourages seekers to get into God’s Word!

  13. Carole G. Moore says:

    Saw this today. Really liked it until the main character walked into the light in the forest and met the Trinity. The premise was good, but it became a bit “hokey” and silly. The Trinity actors were miscast, although the actor playing Jesus was credible. But…I once read that God will connect with you the best way that you can understand. Maybe that’s why He revealed Himself to the guy as his neighborhood adult friend who cared about him. The lessons and symbolism were important. Liked the movie, but did not like the casting of the Trinity so much. Worth the money. Chick flick.

  14. MARY says:

    wE JUST CAME FROM SEEING THE MOVIE. iT WAS AMAZING. sO TOUCHING AND DEEPLY SPIRITUAL. aLL SHOULD SE THIS MOVIE!! tOO SAD THAT THEY HAD TO PAN IT IN THE CRITICS. sO MUCH IN IT TO LISTEN AND LEARN FROM.

  15. Jenny H says:

    Went to see the Shack today and was so deeply moved by it! All the characters of God brought me to tears as I realized how much HE really loves us and will go to any extent to show us. It’s a must see!!

  16. Ann Cabb says:

    The reviewer is obviously missing the message in this film. This is understandable when one tries to fit the other side into this dimension. 1) In spite of the depiction in the Bible, any scholary Christian knows God has no gender. 2) There is more than this existence we live in and call reality; it’s not! 3) Even though I am a degreed social scientist I will not deny my experiences during my clinical deaths. No, these death experiences are not a function of the brain shutting down.
    This film offers people the opportunity to learn and grow in faith to know their true origin we all come from and in faith will return– Go see this movie and enjoy remembering our origin. Possibly the experience will remind you to be more loving, and be less divisive in this world.

  17. Martha says:

    This review missed the point of the entire movie. I as a born again Christian can only applaud this movie. Being a Christian is about having a relationship with God which this movie drives home . It was much better than the book and was tastefully done . Loved the many facets of God depicted in the movie. Enjoy the movie.

  18. Stephanie Price says:

    Faith in God is that easy. I, one, am glad to see this show in films. I am sick of the typical Hollywood films. Christ-followers who actually know Him know that you don’t need the regimented religious rites to get to Jesus/God. It is definitely about the relationship with Jesus Christ and not about the religion. I sincerely hope each person will see this movie for what it really is and not some writers opinion.

  19. Daisy says:

    For the times we’re living in this world full of hate, it’s the perfect movie to strengthen your faith.

  20. He Calls Me His says:

    Paul young is appearing in Orlando Florida to discuss The Shack and take questions. If anyone’s is interested

  21. Jeannette Y says:

    If you want to see another review from a Christian perspective of what the move is trying to portray- from the perspective of those who DO Believe- check out Plugged In review.
    Readers/viewers can make up their own minds of what the meaning of the book/movie are based on their own beleifs.

  22. Jackie Gillespie says:

    It sounds like the movie has not captured the “spiritual” significance of the message of the Trinity which is that God is a supernatural God and TRANSCENDS any human structure or form – The book is a maginificent story of God’s redemptive power I have ever read – READ THE BOOK

    • Mike H. says:

      I don’t think that’s what the book was about either. To me, the main message of the book was forgiveness. Mack forgiving his father, the killer, and God. Just my two cents.

  23. James KIkta says:

    “They’re like the grown-up heroes of Sunday-school fables.” So the writer thinks Sunday School stories (Bible stories) are fables? OK, he’s biased against the Bible and Christianity. He shouldn’t write a review for a “Faith-based” film. He obviously is biased against it before he even writes.

    • Dylan says:

      This is a trade publication (as is THR and Deadline) written primarily for people in the industry. If people outside the industry want to read then you have to understand the perspective all reviews and articles are written from. Structure, commerciality and departments are critiqued from an insiders POV from people who know, about people who know. Your premise is irrelevant in this regard. It’s shop talk here.

  24. mclainster says:

    Say what you will about the movie, but this reviewer didn’t understand it. I hope you will read the book and maybe watch the movie again(I’ll give you a hint: It isn’t about religion at all!).

  25. Mike H. says:

    It’s quite clear that the article’s writer didn’t read the book. He makes it sound like the movie’s producer picked the cast’s race just to be PC friendly. In the book, the Holy Ghost was asian, Jesus was middle eastern and God was black. This was the producer trying to be authentic to the book. I’m going to see the movie tomorrow. I’ve already heard Evangelical Christians hate it, which means I will likely enjoy it (I’m an agnostic). The book was surreal and sappy, I don’t expect the movie to be any different. As a matter of fact, I’m counting on it. The author (if he had read the book) would have also pointed out that it was Nan (the wife/mother) who called God “Papa”, not the daughter. So that appears to be a change from the book.

    Now I’m hoping they turn Young’s other book (Cross Roads) into a movie.

  26. Melissa Harrison says:

    Awesome book and a great movie.

  27. Donovan Bishop says:

    I have just seen the movie and was wondering how it had been perceived by others, which is why I looked at this site. I am a disciple and practicing follower of Jesus Christ and I for one, enjoyed this movie! I know that many “Christians” will say that this movie is horrible for many reasons (most outlandish) and I think it is a shame. Because it is how we (Christians) are viewed today; as unfair, hypocritical, and perhaps one of the most judgmental groups of people on the earth. And I know that it would be foolish to not think that those who believe like me and I will not be viewed as the “bad, cruel, judgmental person(s) that think they are the only ones who are right” some times or most. Even though our country is supposedly the most accepting country in the world, I only see (from a Christian standpoint), that we are just seeking to praise those who seek out what can satisfy their desires. While pushing for Atheism to be taught in public school systems, and banning Christianity to be spoken of let alone taught, how is it fair to push one religion down the throats of the next generation while banning another entirely. While others will say that the movie was crap because of it being unrealistic and that it would be ridiculous for people to actually believe in God, or that it’s blasphemous because God was portrayed as a woman, I would just say to all of those who say that: Just because you don’t believe doesn’t mean no one believes, and why can’t they enjoy a movie that in no way is offensive, and if anything let’s them experience their beliefs in a new way while showing others how their religion truly believes who and what God is, and to those who deem it as blasphemy, actually watch the movie before judging it so harshly and incorrectly. Put down your pride and self-righteousness and watch the dang thing. And then realize if you still hate it, that not everyone wants (or cares) to see your opinion waved about on social media or on the tail end of an airplane in the sky! I enjoyed the movie because of how it gave light to many of the issues that people fight with daily about a loving God who is actually a liar. Which is untrue, and has only come forth from our own misconceptions of circumstances, the person of God, and the freedom or choice He has given us all. All in all, while the movie itself has a few things that could have been better, I was very surprised and even happy with how the movie turned out! Far exceeded my expectations!

    On a side note for Owen Gleiberman, why (unless your job calls for it) are you coming off so snobbishly in your so called review? I say “so called” because it honestly just looks to me as ridiculing a movie and those who believe in a personal God. Unless your job is to ridicule someone’s beliefs, I would suggest not poking fun (however stupid or foolish you think it to be) at them. Unless that is why you are paid of course, and if that is the case then I really should just find someone who actually does do a real review on this movie and you keep doing what makes you happy!

    Hope that I didn’t come off too rude at the end, I just want Christianity to be realised as an actual religion just like atheism and Catholicism and all the other religions out there. It is completely different then all the other religions in it’s basis, but just how I don’t make fun of atheists (although I don’t agree with them or their beliefs) atheists and members of other religions don’t have a right to treat my religions like crap, especially in America where we are supposedly free to believe what we want and not be persecuted for it. If I came off offensively I apologize, not for my beliefs, but for how I came off rudely.

  28. Riley says:

    Oh wait Scorcese made a masterpiece film about the struggle of faith and 3% of America watched it. #Silence

    • tlsnyder42 says:

      Uh, HACKSAW RIDGE made about $70 million and debuted as No. 1 on home video. SILENCE was more of an artsy movie; few people see such movies as that. Even then, however, more people see faith-based movies like HEAVEN IS FOR REAL that many, many “indie” movies and especially many foreign movies. In fact, FIREPROOF was the No. 1 truly independent movie in the year it was released! And, GOD’S NOT DEAD is among the five highest earning independent movies, from what I understand. That doesn’t mean indie and foreign movies should never have a theatrical run in the USA.

  29. ZZ says:

    Do you all know that the Holy Spirit is real? Though this article makes it seem like the Holy Spirit is not real, it is. God sent his only Son to die on the cross because of our sins. By doing this Jesus opened the doors of Heaven to us. This gets even better because Jesus is raised up from the grave!! (You can read all about this in the New Testament) Imagine that, God loved us so much He sent His ONLY Son!! The Holy Spirit is real!!

  30. digitalrich says:

    I so wish that writers that attempt to tackle films with Christian faith embedded actually knew what they were talking about. The concern from the evangelical Christian community has nothing to do with “racism” (didn’t you trip over your own mention of Morgan Freeman?)- it has to with what many see as fundamental theological errors and spiritual deception- again having NOTHING to do with race or gender.

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